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Muslim private schools thrive

Two K-12 schools provide a comfortable learning environment for Muslim students. Each has grown rapidly and plans to expand.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001

TAMPA -- A day at Universal Academy of Florida, a private school for Muslim students in the shadow of a gold-domed mosque on Sligh Avenue, is like a day at any other school.

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Najat Yennes, 10, left, and Naseem Akel open their textbooks at the start of their Arabic language class at Universal Academy of Florida in Tampa.
Students have assemblies where they sing Fifty Nifty United States and have plays about nutrition with kids dressed as grapes, oranges and carrots.

But here, the students also read the Koran, the holy book of Islam, pray the required five times a day and attend mosque at 1:30 on Friday afternoons, walking single-file from their classrooms in their green uniforms.

They learn Arabic, and girls wear the head scarf required by their religion.

"If you went to public school, you will feel more to the side if you were wearing all this," said 11-year-old Rusha Atfeh. "But here you are open. You don't have to worry about what people think of you."

Universal is one of two schools in Hillsborough that serve a burgeoning Muslim community estimated at 20,000. Both Universal and the Islamic Academy of Florida in Temple Terrace started about 10 years ago with a handful of students in trailers.

Both are well on their way this year to meeting fundraising goals for new buildings.

Universal, a K-12 school, plans to build a $1.5-million facility with 20 classrooms, a science lab, a computer lab, a library and an indoor gym for a basketball team that formed last year. The Islamic Academy, also K-12, hopes in the next few years to build a $2-million facility with about 20 classrooms, a science lab, a library and a gym.

School officials said the Muslim community feeds the schools and the schools feed the Muslim community.

A father might get a job offer in three different cities, said Universal Academy Principal Magida Saleh, but will chose Tampa because of the Muslim schools.

At Universal, 21 nations are represented. Parents were born in places such as Jordan, Egypt, Puerto Rico, India and Kosovo.

The schools draw from across the region. A van of 15 students comes to Universal from St. Petersburg. Another 15 come from Clearwater. A yellow school bus with 55 students comes from Spring Hill, a 11/2-hour ride each way.

"I usually always sleep," said Abid Nimer, a fifth-grader.

Universal started in 1992 with two trailers and 18 students. Each year, enrollment grew 20 percent to 30 percent. Portables were added until a square framed the courtyard of picnic tables and pathways.

Now, inside those portables, metal desks are packed side by side. Enrollment is 300 this year and is expected to be 350 next year. It's a similar story at the Islamic Academy, where enrollment this year was 200.

The schools are supported mostly through tuition, which ranges from $2,700 to $3,300 depending on grade level. But private donations also play a part.

Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets, a Muslim from Nigeria, donated $250,000 to Islamic Academy and has visited twice, autographing basketballs. The playground is named after him.

Most donations, though, come locally and in different ways. Parents in Hernando bought the full-size school bus that take the children to Universal. They also pay to maintain it and pay the driver's salary.

The parents pay because they want to keep "Islamic values and language," explained Lisa Alasad, a Carrollwood mom who also works as an aide at Universal Academy.

Keeping the school current with the times is a challenge for school officials. It means instituting some very American experiences, such as a Girl Scout program, participation in the county's school science fair and sports teams. Last year, Universal fielded a basketball team, the Warriors. They practiced on an outdoor court.

They won one game, an away game.

"We went in the locker room afterward and started hollering for 15 minutes," said 15-year-old Nabil Sarah, a member of the team.

It's not always the parents who choose the school. Ossama Elshamy, 15, came to Brandon from Egypt three years ago when his father, an engineer, relocated. He spent ninth grade at Bloomingdale High School.

During Eid ul-Fitr, the celebration that ends a month of fasting in December, he said he had to get a letter from the mosque for an official excused absence.

He wanted to finish his high school years at Universal Academy.

"It really is hard to live in a different environment with nobody with you," said Ossama, a senior who is going to USF next year. "You're here by yourself, you know."

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